When I graduated from high school, my friend Kruno wrote the following phrase in my yearbook:
“ConGraduation on Your Gratulations!”
The comment was a stroke of genius, in my opinion. Creative. Different. Funny. As a result, I remember it to this day, more than 30 years later.
Kruno was a brilliant writer, and he could come up with phrases like that at a moment’s notice.
For me, on the other hand, being asked to sign a yearbook or a birthday card is a special form of torture. I labor over these types of tasks, and it will often take me 10 minutes or more to conjure up the appropriate written phrase for each particular occasion.
There are those who are comfortable with just scribbling their name on greeting cards. There are others who will simply initial them.
Those people are lazy. They lack creativity.
A birthday card is not a bank loan contract that needs to be initialed here, here, and here. A good birthday message in a greeting card can be remembered and appreciated by your friend or loved one for years.
But what makes a good birthday card message?
. . .
It is your birthday
On the hit TV sitcom “The Office”, nerdy paper salesman Dwight Schrute once made a huge banner for his boss’ birthday party that simply said, “It is your birthday.”
There was no exclamation point. No smiley face. No party hat emoji. He wasn’t even really wishing him a happy birthday. He was merely stating a fact. It was, indeed, his birthday.
This was the signage equivalent of a scribbled autograph on a birthday card. The problem with Dwight’s message was that it was boring. There was no emotion in it whatsoever, and it didn’t stand out.
A good birthday greeting is exciting. To be exciting and memorable, your message needs to do just one thing: the opposite of what everyone else’s messages are doing.
. . .
The first rule of birthday card messages
In his book “Made to Stick”, author Chip Heath talks about ways to make people remember the things you write and say.
“The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.”
In terms of birthday cards from large groups, in order to break a pattern, you first have to identify the pattern. Once that is done, the rest is fairly easy.
But how do you do that?
Simply put, you should never be the first to sign a birthday card. Ideally, you should be the last person to sign it. Once everyone else in your group has signed the birthday card, it will be easy to identify the general pattern of their messages.
This means, if everyone is just signing their names, you should write a message. If everyone is writing in small font, you should write noticeably bigger. If everyone is writing in blue or black pen, you should write in red or green pen. If everyone is writing messages, you should draw a picture.
Standing out from the crowd, by breaking an established pattern, is the first rule of good birthday card messages.
Even if you’re the only one signing the card, you can stand out by finding a way to do something different than what you would normally see on a traditional birthday greeting message. Use colors. Use stickers. Draw something.
. . .
The secret to a good birthday message
We’ve established that your birthday message must be visually compelling, but it is equally critical for it to be worth reading.
Birthday cards are meant to be fun and light. Messages in these cards should reflect this goal. Essentially, you would do well to write a good ‘dad joke’ in your birthday message.
A ‘dad joke’ is a short, inoffensive but funny joke. Many of these types of jokes are mocked for their simplicity, but often they are effective in getting a laugh or a groan.
Here’s a good dad joke for a birthday card: “It’s easier to remember your age if you don’t change it every year”.
Memorable birthday cards contain at least one of the following 4 elements of a good ‘dad joke’:
- alliteration — using phrases with multiple instances of the same letter or sound to create a catchy phrase
- puns- playing around with words that sound similar to make an amusing phrases
- rhyming words — using limericks or rhymes to create a melodic phrase
- surprise endings — starting a message in one way but taking it in a completely different direction.
When starting to write a message on a birthday card, pick one of the above elements(or all 4) and go for it. You can’t get too cheesy or too corny in a birthday card. Cheesiness and corniness are essential traits of birthday cards and dad jokes.
If you are able to write a good dad joke, you are able to write a great birthday card message. If you’re not good at writing dad jokes, then just grab a few from the internet and keep them for a rainy day. Nobody is going to sue you for plagiarism if you copy a dad joke for someone’s 39th birthday card.
(I may have borrowed my friend Kruno’s graduation message more than once over the years).
. . .
In the classic 1987 comedy film “Roxanne”, we meet a character named Mayor Deebs who governs the small town at the center of the story. In one of his final scenes in the film, the mayor gives a heartfelt speech to his constituents that embodies the framework of a great birthday card message.
This short play on words is a perfect example of the type of content that would work well in a birthday card. Deebs grabs his audience’s attention by standing on a pedestal, and then he proceeds to deliver a toast that is heartfelt, funny, and surprising.
In the same way, if you want to deliver a great message in a birthday card, you must ensure to follow 2 steps:
- grab your recipient’s attention by breaking away from an established pattern
- make your message memorable by using at least one of the four elements of a good dad joke
The vast majority of people do not put enough effort into birthday cards, and that’s a shame. Think about how you feel when you receive a good birthday message. Now think about how you feel when you receive a card filled with mostly signatures or initials. Trust me, it should be fairly easy for you to stand out from the rest by trying these pretty simple ideas. And your friends and loved ones will remember your effort!
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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